You don’t have to overtax the Google machine to find negative comments about being on set with Steven Spielberg. Type in “working with Steven Spielberg” and in 0.57 seconds 20,900,000 results appear, including an article where Shia LaBeouf rants, “He’s less a director than he is a f—ing company.”
LaBeouf’s resume is dotted with Spielberg-produced or -directed films like Disturbia, Transformers, Eagle Eye and, most famously, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but if Spielberg ever does the same search it’s unlikely they’ll ever pair up again. “You get there, and you realize you’re not meeting the Spielberg you dream of,” LaBeouf told Variety. “You’re meeting a different Spielberg, who is in a different stage in his career.”
But that’s pretty much it for the negativity. There’s a story about Crispin Glover suing Spielberg for using his likeness in Back to the Future Part II and the critical drone that his films are overly sentimental, but primarily it’s LaBeouf against Spielberg and the world. Most of his other co-workers have nothing but praise for the filmmaker Empire magazine ranked as the greatest film director of all time.
This weekend he returns to theatres with Ready Player One, a sci-fi film that brings a virtual reality world called the OASIS to vivid life. Star Tye Sheridan calls the director a great and passionate collaborator who makes everyone feel equal on set. Co-star Ralph Ineson calls Spielberg “one of the most iconic figures of the last 100 years,” adding that it was difficult to takes notes from him on set. “When he is speaking to you your mind vaguely goes blank the first few times because your internal monologue just goes, ‘My god, Steven Spielberg is giving me a note.’ And then you realize you haven’t actually heard the note.”
All directors give suggestions on set, but it seems it’s the way Spielberg speaks to his actors that sets him apart.
Ed Burns remembers making a mess of several takes on the set of Saving Private Ryan to the point where Tom Hanks said to him, “I’ve seen you act before, and this isn’t acting.” Afraid he would be replaced, he got nervous and continued to blow take after take but Spielberg didn’t offer guidance. Two weeks passed. The cast started laying bets on who would be fired first.
Turns out, no one was fired and Burns learned a lesson he would later take into his own directorial efforts like Sidewalks of New York. The actor reports that Spielberg said, “I like to give my actors three takes to figure it out. If I step in after the first take and give you a note, especially with young actors, you’ll hear me rather than your own voice.”
Burns calls the experience “a life changer” adding it taught him that being a director is “about knowing when to give direction.”
The superstar director says the listening lesson was learned early in life. “From a very young age my parents taught me probably the most valuable lesson of my life: Sometimes it’s better not to talk, but to listen.”
There’s someone else Spielberg keeps in mind when making a film. “I always like to think of the audience when I am directing. Because I am the audience.”
“War Horse” is one part “Saving Private Ryan,” one part “ET” and all Spielberg. Pulling its inspiration from both a children’s novel set during World War I and the 2007 stage adaptation of the same name, it is the kind of movie that used to win Best Picture awards. It’s handsome, well crafted and emotional, but also old-fashioned and a bit too traditional for its own good.
Newcomer Jeremy Irvine stars as Albert Narracott, the son of Ted (Peter Mullen), a poor but proud Devon farmer. In the months before the outbreak of World War I Ted gets caught up in auction fever and wildly overpays for a thoroughbred horse in the local village. The horse, named Joey, is a beauty, but Ted needed a workhorse not a purebred. His son Albert, however, bonds with the horse and rains him to plough fields and earn his keep. When war is declared the horse is recruited into the cavalry as an officer’s official ride. Heartbroken, Albert vows he will be reunited with Joey at the end of the war. In the coming years the horse changes hands several times, passing from the British to German armies, to a French farmer and his granddaughter, before winding up, alone, in No Man’s Land. He’s the little horse who could… could save the family farm, fight a war, bridge the gap between enemies, but most of all, survive.
“War Horse” is an old-fashioned, inspirational horse movie, fueled by big emotional moments and Joey’s even bigger soulful eyes. Combining epic, realistic battle scenes with smaller emotive moments Spielberg has made a traditional feeling film that nonetheless feels uneven.
For every scene that really works, like shooting part of one sequence through a reflection in the horse’s eye, there are two others that feel unnecessary. It’s frustrating because the things that work are spectacular.
Spielberg has an unerring eye when it comes to shot composition and he knows how to suck every drop of emotion out of a scene. Few moments on film this year are as effective as Joey’s entrance into the No Man’s Land between the German and English trenches. Wrapped in barbed wire, writhing and snorting, it’s magnificent in its tortured beauty (although horse lovers may find it hard to watch).
But for all its highlights the first twenty minutes drag, Irvine has almost negative charisma and the end is coated in an almost sick-making thick layer of Spielbergian sugar.
“War Horse” is a beautiful looking film, handsome in both its craft and intention, but runs out of racetrack because of too many moments of unearned emotion.